Bottom-line, up front: LA land use laws are so restrictive and bureaucratic that it's not financially possible to build small, no-frills apartment buildings anymore like we did before the late 1960s.
I'll start by talking about how our zoning laws work, and then go into why LA zoning law makes it impossible to build non-luxury apartments.
How zoning laws work
Let's start by talking about how the law works. Every piece of land has a zoning designation, which specifies what is and isn't legal to build on a piece of land. If you want to build something new that isn't allowed by the zoning code, you're going to have to go to City Hall, to get a zoning variance - that is, a special permit to build something other than what's explicitly allowed by law. The City Council is under no obligation to grant you a variance, and if you don't grease palms you're likely to get shot down. This is in addition to the exhaustive review required under the California Environmental Quality Act that I discussed previously.
Keep this in mind while I take you on a short tour of LA's zoning law.
Pre-1960s zoning law
LA was designed to be sprawling from the very beginning. In 1904, the City Council put a height limit of 150 feet (~13 stories) on the city - in a period when NYC and Chicago had already gotten to 400 feet (30 stories). This was designed to prevent "the undue concentration of traffic," as a 1925 County report put it. Same for residential zoning, which had setback requirements
to encourage single-family construction. This is why LA doesn't have rowhouse neighborhoods like you see in SF, NYC or Philadelphia, even though most of LA was laid out before the car.
In the olden days, the intensity of development tended to match the value of the land. I'll illustrate by going starting in DTLA and going west. This is 6th and Broadway,in the Historic Core, with a mix of skyscrapers and mid-rise commercial space; go outbound a few miles to 3rd and New Hampshire in Koreatown and it's all lots of small, low-slung apartment buildings; by Miracle Mile you start seeing a bunch of single family homes interspersed with the apartments; keep going three miles further out to Cheviot Hills and it's all recognizably suburban and single-family. Single-family homes would gradually be torn down and replaced with apartments, or they'd be cut up into apartments, like on old Bunker Hill
This kind of semi-organic development was normal until the 1960s. But then a pretty dramatic shift happened: LA was growing so quickly, and land values were rising so fast, that lots of small apartment buildings started popping up in single-family residential neighborhoods, especially on the Westside. This is where zoning laws started to get really restrictive.
The changes of the late '60s through '90s
The small apartment buildings that triggered this revolt are called are called dingbats. They're those boxy buildings you see all over the place with pompous names like "La Traviata"
or "Chateau Antoinette". These kinds of housing weren't pretty - but they were no-frills apartments you could afford if you were an actor, or a grocery clerk, or a secretary. This scared the hell out of homeowners in rich neighborhoods, because apartments were for poor people and minorities. So, we voted for politicians who reduced the zoning of LA bit by bit, effectively freezing the status quo in place. And after 1970, rich communities just stopped building new housing, period. You can see the results from the population table below.
Even in LA City the reduction in capacity was really drastic
. In 1960, LA City, population 2.5 million, had a zoning code that allowed for 10 million inhabitants worth of housing. By 2010, LA City, population 4 million, had a zoning code that allowed for 4.3 million inhabitants - and about 75% of LA City's land was reserved for single-family homes only. Existing buildings are grandfathered in, but it's not legal to build new ones.
Why the zoning laws make it impossible to build small non-luxury apartments
These restrictive zoning changes mean that small, cheap apartment buildings are largely off-limits today. It simply makes no sense to spend $150,000 on environmental review, hire lawyers to get a variance, and get into a years-long fight with the city council to build 6 measly apartments. You have to build big, or go home. Big, politically-connected developers can do that, because these bureaucratic and legal costs are already built in to their business model. Large corporate developers can spread the costs of attorneys and political wrangling across a few dozen or a few hundred mid-rise apartments, especially if you aim it at the luxury market.
But there's just no good legal way to build simple no-frills apartments anymore, because it's so much hassle and expense to get them approved. It's not a technological problem - it's a legal and political one.
So how do we fix this?
There's a good bill in the state legislature which would rezone all single-family plots for four units, eliminate minimum parking requirements near transit, and provide for ministerial approval so the City Council and the neighbors can't meddle. The Legislature did this already with granny flats and backyard cottages, as well as with certain types of affordable housing, and it's dramatically sped up the process of approving new construction. Doing the same for small apartment buildings would make it financially possible to build non-luxury apartments again, because it means way less money spent on lawyers and more money for building.